“Is public virtue dead?”: Shelley’s “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things”


By Spudgun67 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By John Frederick Kaufman

What better poem to turn to than one recently discovered in England, a poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1811 when he was just 18 and a student at Oxford University. No copy of the poem existed in the public realm until this month, when Oxford’s Bodleian Library made it available online. The full poem can be found at the Digital Bodleian website, including the terms of use. (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford 2015). For a good introduction and review of the poem, see this piece on Shelley’s lost poem by The Guardian’s John Mullan.

What follows are brief excerpts of Shelley’s “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things”. I chose what seem to me some of the best and most currently relevant lines of the poem.

Aside: The making of poetic arguments (“essays”) were once a popular form, the most famous being Alexander Pope’s long poem An Essay on Man. In the preface to the poem, Pope explains in prose why he chose to write his “essay” in verse:

“This I might have done in prose, but I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons.  The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: the other may seem odd, but is true, I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions depends on their conciseness.  I was unable to treat this part of my subject more in detail, without becoming dry and tedious; or more poetically, without sacrificing perspicuity to ornament, without wandering from the precision, or breaking the chain of reasoning: if any man can unite all these without diminution of any of them I freely confess he will compass a thing above my capacity.”

These days we tend to make a stricter division between poetry and prose, claiming that poetry should avoid doing what prose does– poetry should show, not tell, young poets are told. Above all, the young are told, rather didactically,  Don’t be didactic! That it is poetically possible to show and tell at the same time, that good, even great poetry can also be essentially condensed, musical argument, is not much in favor today in critical and academic circles. Who cares? You want to write in rhymed, reasoning couplets? Have at it.

Whether the young Shelley’s poem is “great” or not scholars will argue about. Some lines of it, at least, seem to me to be both true and eloquent. I won’t comment on the contemporary connections, except to say they are political and fairly obvious . . .

From “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Millions to fight compelled, to fight or die,
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie.
The sternly wise, the mildly good, have sped
To the unfruitful mansions of the dead.

* * *

When narrow views the futile mind deceive,
When thirst of wealth, or frantic rage for fame
Lights for awhile self-interest’s little flame,
When legal murders swell the lists of pride;
When glory’s views the titled idiot guide,
Then will oppression’s iron influence show
The great man’s comfort as the poor man’s woe.

* * *

Ye cold advisers of yet colder kings,
To whose fell breast no passion virtue brings,
Who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang,
Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang,
Yourselves secure.

* * *

And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?
Is public virtue dead?– is courage gone?
Bows its fair form at fell oppression’s throne?

* * *

Kings are but men, if thirst of meanest sway
Has not that title even snatched away.

* * *

Oppressive law no more shall power retain,
Peace, love and concord, once shall rule again,
And heal the anguish of a suffering world;
Then, then shall things, which now confusedly hurled,
Seem Chaos, be resolved to order’s sway,
And error’s night be turned to virtue’s day.

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